SXSW Exclusive Review: The Carnivores

Year: 2020
Runtime: 77 Minutes
Director: Caleb Johnson
Writers: Caleb Johnson, Jeff Bay Smith
Stars: Tallie Medel, Lindsay Burdge, Vincent James Prendergast

By Tom Moore

Writer/director Caleb Johnson’s sophomore effort, “The Carnivores”, has a lot of strong intrigue, allure, and character to entrance viewers into its strange story of how man’s best friend is dividing a couple and making one of them oddly obsessed with raw meat.

The film follows Alice (Tallie Medel) and Brett (Lindsay Burdge) as they are divided by Brett’s dog Harvie as his illness is causing him to slowly die. Although Brett wants to spend every last second with him since she feels she has so much history with him, Alice feels like he’s ruining everything. With Brett pretty much being obsessed with Harvie, Alice is starting to feel left out and it’s causing a major rift in their intimacy and love for one another. However, after Alice’s sleepwalking and her issues with Harvie come to a head, Harvie goes missing and the two women begin to uncover strange, beautiful, and even horrifying parts of one another.

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The divide between Alice and Brett over Harvie is showcased beautifully right from the first scene as Brett caringly calls for Harvie after he escapes, and Alice half-heartedly does the same. Brett clearly loves Harvie like a member of her family, which any dog lover can relate to, and show him the kind of love and devotion that Alice is seeking but doesn’t know how to express to Brett. With this disconnect, there’s a great slow-building tension surrounding each scene with Harvie right in the middle and interesting conflicts as each of their issues come to light. Even with all of this conflict and uneasy tension, there’s still plenty of love that’s also felt and it’s what makes Alice and Brett’s relationship so easy to invest yourself into.

“The weirdness never gets in the way though, there’s still a well-crafted story that builds suspense and intrigue very well.”

While these two sides have different views, neither one is ever declared right, and it allows viewers to understand both Alice and Brett’s issues and see them grow. From Brett obsessively looking for Harvie after he’s gone missing and growing a cold shoulder to Alice becoming distant from reality as her sleepwalking gets worse and her craving for raw meat grows, it’s easy to find yourself caring about them rather than Harvie – no matter how adorable he is. It’s easy to appreciate the moments of strife because of the clear love they have for one another and seeing them overcome their personal struggles surrounding Harvie is both gratifying and a little strange.

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“The film is elevated through two great leading performances from Medel and Burdge. Both of them really make their characters flaws very relatable and evoke all of their emotions in a very connective way.”

It’s actually quite fitting that a story as weird and whimsical as this takes place in Austin, a city whose longtime slogan is Keep Austin Weird. There’s an excellent amount psychological horror that takes place as Brett frantically searches for Harvie, regardless of who gets in her way, and with Alice continuously sleepwalking and staring at raw meat in a way that’s hard to watch and yet hard to look away. Frankly, even though her growing obsession with raw meat is kind of random and not explained much, it’s still very effective in making your stomach turn and likely not looking at your local grocery store’s meat section the same again. The weirdness never gets in the way though, there’s still a well-crafted story that builds suspense and intrigue very well.

The way that Johnson and fellow writer Jeff Bay Smith build the story is very smart as they keep certain details in the dark to create a palpable sense of suspense. There’s a great moment where Alice seemingly leaves Harvie at a cemetery and it’s left up in the air whether or not she actually did. This leaves a great moment of suspense for when Brett comes homes and is a great showing of how Johnson and Smith let the viewers ponder on what’s going to happen next. In short, rather than hold viewers’ hand, there’s perfectly sized breadcrumbs that lead viewers through a genuinely unpredictable, intriguing, and greatly paced film.

“The Carnivores” has an alluring weirdness, strong characters and performances, and genre-blending elements to create a unique experience.”

Not to mention, the film is elevated through two great leading performances from Medel and Burdge. Both of them really make their characters flaws very relatable and evoke all of their emotions in a very connective way. Medel brings out Alice’s sleepwalking and growing obsession with raw meat in an incredibly creepy fashion and Burdge shows Brett’s hard-headedness in a way that’s easy to understand. Together, they create a relationship that’s very endearing and LGTBQ representation that’s heavy-handed and very genuine.

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With plenty of drama, weirdness, and psychological horror, “The Carnivores” also has some nice elements of dark humor that mostly work well with the editing. With smash cuts to things like Alice suddenly waking up in a strange place, having an awkward discussion with her awkward co-worker Roland (Vincent James Prendergast), and to a strange tutorial about cutting meat, there’s plenty of welcomed humor between everything. I will say though, some of the technical aspects can be distracting as some of the audio and video editing is noticeably off or jarring and the lighting and color change in scenes are odd.

“The Carnivores” has an alluring weirdness, strong characters and performances, and genre-blending elements to create a unique experience. However, it becomes even more special because of the natural LGBTQ love story at its core and ultimately makes “The Carnivores” a very impressive and well-crafted film.

4.5 stars

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